I enjoy reading about about up and coming chefs from around the country. Their stories tend to be filled with glorious ups and massive downs. A while back I was reading about the winner of the best new chef award who hailed from San Francisco and cooked at a tiny, no-name Chinese restaurant. Actually it did have a name. On the façade was the name of some long defunct Chinese restaurant that once inhabited this famous spot in the Mission district. The inconspicuous, almost secretive, nature of the storefront adds to the allure. It’s one of those things us food lovers, well…love. To be a know it all, in the know, knowing all even if we know nothing.
The restaurant itself seems to be unchanged from the stereotypical Chinese restaurants we’ve all come to know, but then you see the menu. Classically inspired, but clearly innovative when you consider the produce, protein and technique used in the dishes.
Over the past three years, this place and its chef have been white-hot, lauded, applauded and set on high by every major publication. Needless to say, Mission Chinese has been a large blip on our radar for a while now. I’d been dying to try it, but I never had a chance to fly out west. Then, it was revealed that Mission Chinese was opening an east coast branch in NYC. I thought for sure I stood a greater shot to devour some thrice cooked pork belly now. Sadly a trip to New York still hasn’t come.
Eat a Duck’s longtime friend, Todd Sturtz of Tasting Tampa fame and soon to be snacking in San Diego, got the chance to dine at Missions New York branch recently and was thoroughly impressed with his meal, which added to my already burning desire for Mr. Bowein’s thoughtful cuisine.
Miraculously I found myself with an opportunity to visit The City, a warmth growing in my heart from the prospect of eating at Mission Chinese for the first time. So, my research began. As I planned out an itinerary which included a surplus of other buzz worthy Chinese restaurants, I noticed a very sobering trend. People were straight up crapping on Mission. Not even in a civilized way either. It’s as if they built a special outhouse in which to dump their vicious verbal excrement on Mission Chinese as a whole. They’d been praised so highly by all the online eating, entertainment and travel sites I frequent, and now, just as I was about to visit, it seemed Mission Chinese was falling off the radar, with complaints of quality control issues.
Now do you see why we don’t trust the general public?
Because they aren’t very smart. Sadly the fickle majority has a voice much louder than the small group of individuals qualified to judge quality. Mission Chinese has been fortunate to stay in business long enough to have their initial buzz wear off. Apparently to some that’s the mark of a restaurant in decline. I lump these people in with the same godless rabble that vote (insert generic chain restaurant here) as best eats in town.
So what’s wrong with Mission Chinese. Nothing. It was amazing, thought provoking and most certainly innovative to a degree you don’t often see. Although, in the same breath, I would say a steady respect to classic Chinese was clearly shown. General Tso or (General Torso as my family pronounces) is one of those dishes every Chinese restaurant has to cover. It’s kind of the new sweet and sour. Something that’s been done to death, but if you get a wild hair and order it at a good place, it is actually quite tasty.
Think about adding that sweet, onion-chile sauce on top of a slow cooked veal rib. The meat was so tender it harkened me back to a fatty wagyu beef brisket I once had. With added heat from copious amounts of chiles, I was ready to get out of my seat and clap my hands say yeah. Our mini meal also included a beautiful bowl of pork wontons with pea tendrils, relaxing ever so comfortably in a crystal clear bath of ham consommé, a broth so soothing it could have cured Sutro’s many ailments.
The only downside was that Mission Chinese was only stop three on an all day food crawl, so we were only able to sample these two dishes. Had there been more time, or if I could somehow figure out a way to distend my tripe more than it already is, I would have gone back again. It was so great I would have bypassed other seemingly worthwhile places for a second waltz with some kung pao pastrami or quite possibly an order of schmaltz fried rice. So let me emphasize a key point for your travels. Guides are just that…guides, think of public opinion as 1200 grit sandpaper, it doesn’t really accomplish anything. Generally, people can’t be trusted, but they can come in handy to get a ballpark idea of what could be good. Popularity does not necessarily equal quality and unfortunately vice versa, so train your heart to decipher sample menus and form your own opinion. If a menu includes a number of items that look like the best thing you’ll ever eat, that’s a good place to start.